Ohio AG Pulls Out the Stops to Block Voting Rights Amendment

Red background with blue document in the middle that shows the ballot language for the Ohio Voters Bill of Rights amendment, but the title is crossed out in spray paint and Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost is holding the spray paint can in the bottom left corner while Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose is in the top right corner.

It’s a tale as old as time in Ohio, but Republican officials are again using their authority to thwart efforts to expand the people’s power. But unlucky for them, the coalition behind an expansive voting rights amendment isn’t backing down from the fight.

In my last article, I provided an overview of the Ohio Voters Bill of Rights, a proposed constitutional amendment backed by a coalition of legacy civil rights groups and voting rights advocates. The amendment would modernize Ohio’s election system with common-sense, popular pro-voter policies that would make our democracy more accessible to more people and one that works for all of us.

Naturally, then, Ohio Republicans have already started their attempts to undermine it at every chance they get. But before I dive into that, allow me to give a quick rundown of the behind the scenes process that charts the path for an amendment to qualify for the ballot.

Long before Ohioans cast their votes on a citizen-proposed constitutional amendment, it has to survive a couple of bureaucratic hurdles — the first is approval from the state attorney general’s office of ballot summary language. This summary language, as the name suggests, provides an overview of the full text of the proposed amendment and is included with petitions to gather signatures to inform voters about what they’re signing. And together with the summary language, backers of the amendment must also submit at least 1,000 valid signatures from registered voters in Ohio. 

Once the state attorney general clears that ballot summary language, the amendment then moves to the Ohio Ballot Board, led by Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose, to determine whether it fits under the state’s single-subject rule and can remain as one single ballot amendment or if it needs to be split into multiple measures by subject matter. Once the Ballot Board issues its decision and approves the amendment(s) to move forward, the backers then enter a massive signature gathering effort to collect about 415,000 signatures from across the state, including a certain number from at least half of Ohio’s 88 counties.

The coalition behind the Ohio Voters Bill of Rights initially submitted its amendment, summary language and signatures to Attorney General Dave Yost (R) at the end of last year. At this stage of the process, Yost is charged with determining whether the ballot summary language is a “fair and truthful” reflection of the full amendment text. That’s it. Pretty straight forward, right? Well, not so fast.

At the end of the 10-day period, the attorney general is allowed to analyze the summary language. Yost rejected the proposal arguing that the summary was misleading and that it didn’t fully capture the intricacies of various policies throughout the amendment. In other words, he nitpicked parts of the summary that … summarized … the amendment. But he also took issue with the title of the amendment, claiming that it was “completely untethered” to the policies included in the amendment.

It’s not actually unusual for the attorney general to reject a proposed constitutional amendment on its first attempt to go through this part of the qualification process (he did so last year for the redistricting reform amendment, for example). But it is unusual for Yost to mention the title its backers chose to give the amendment as an issue. 

As is too often the case for Ohio Republicans, what’s the law got to do with anything when you’re trying to block a people-backed effort to expand voting rights?

Yost wasn’t the only person with an issue with the title (or the amendment writ large). LaRose released a statement on his website absolutely trashing the amendment as a “Trojan horse” from radical interests looking to undermine the integrity and security of our state’s elections. He claimed it was an inherent end result of Ohioans having rejected his and his Republican pals’ proposal last August to undermine our own power by increasing the win threshold for ballot amendments, which, if you’re asking me, sounds like pure sore loser energy. 

Nevertheless, the coalition behind the amendment made the changes Yost requested (including adding in verbatim amendment text language to the summary to suit his favor) and even changed the title of the amendment from the Secure and Fair Elections Act to the Ohio Voters Bill of Rights, the same title a nearly identical amendment that Black civil rights organizations tried to qualify for the ballot back in 2014.

But again, Yost rejected the amendment. This time, though, he didn’t mention a single thing about the summary language itself. In fact, he wrote in his rejection letter that he didn’t even need to read the summary language because the new title was so misleading that it on its own was enough to reject the entire proposal. And now there was a real problem.

As you’ll recall, at this stage of the process, the attorney general’s job is to determine whether the summary is a “fair and truthful” reflection of the full amendment text. Ohio law is quite plain about this and provides him the authority to merely “conduct an examination of the summary” — that’s it.

To take this one step further, the title of a proposed constitutional amendment isn’t even required at this stage of the qualification process; Ohio law only requires a title to appear on a proposed ballot amendment once it’s gotten approval from both the attorney general and the Ballot Board and is in the major signature gathering collection phase.

But, as is too often the case for Ohio Republicans, what’s the law got to do with anything when you’re trying to block a people-backed effort to expand voting rights?

Rather than changing the title of the amendment to bow to Yost’s personal distaste for it, though, the coalition behind the effort took him to court instead. Their lawsuit challenges what they call his “shameful abuse of power to stymie the right of Ohio citizens to propose amendments to the Ohio Constitution.” Ohio law doesn’t afford Yost the authority to opine about a proposed title, let alone to reject it wholesale based entirely on that. And yet that’s exactly what he did — he even admitted it himself.

In my mind, challenging this rejection before the Ohio Supreme Court is absolutely the right call for a couple of reasons. First, seeking clarity on what exactly Yost’s authority is at this stage of the process is necessary not just for the backers of the Ohio Voters Bill of Rights, but also for any other group who seeks to exercise their right to amend our state constitution through a ballot initiative. 

This is particularly true in a state where Republicans have shown time and again that they are willing to leverage the power of their official positions in government against the will of the people and to undermine the power of our votes — their behavior in the lead up to our two elections last year are a perfect illustration of that.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, it’s necessary for us to challenge any instance of lawlessness that we see from our elected officials. I’m sure the coalition could have come up with yet another title for the amendment and gathered another batch of 1,000 signatures to try for a third time to get approval from Yost, but why should they? They responded to his concerns about the summary language as laid out in his initial rejection and duly submitted their proposal. Yost then wasted 10 days to issue a rejection based solely on his distaste for a five-word title, something he’s not actually allowed to do.

What comes next in this process is a determination from the state Supreme Court. For what it’s worth, the coalition has asked the court for relief in the form of forcing Yost to certify the amendment and to then send it off to the Ballot Board for its review of the subject matter. Here’s hoping the court comes down on the right side of the law, paving the way for this imperative amendment to keep moving forward.

Katy Shanahan is an attorney and activist in her home state of Ohio where she serves as the Strategic Program Director for the Ohio Progressive Collaborative. As a contributor to Democracy Docket, Shanahan writes about the state of voting rights in Ohio as well as redistricting both in Ohio and across the country.